Tag Archives: The Shack

Interview with The Shack original publisher and collaborator, Wayne Jacobsen

For over a year now, people have been asking me what I think of The Shack. Mostly, I’m fascinated by how it’s gotten people talking—believers and regular folks, liberals and conservatives, long-time Christians and the disenfranchised. And it hasn’t even gone to mass market paperback yet (update: it now has). As a result of it all, The Shack is the little, unassuming book that continues to sit atop the bestseller lists and create controversy.

No denying it’s a fairly unusual book. Even with all its visibility, it’s difficult to call it a sensation. At first glance, most everything about it—from the book’s style, to its author, to the way in which it was published—looks fairly commonplace. Yet its unusual success story belies the unusualness beneath the pages.

I admit I was predisposed to give the book my usual surface treatment and be done with it. But as I started reading, I realized I couldn’t dismiss it so easily. In fact, I had to finish it, not just to see what all the fuss was about, but to experience something I rarely get to—a transporting experience. I read with increasing excitement and emotion. Something momentous seemed to be hidden between the pages.

So once I finished, I decided I needed to know the truth about all the rumors and accusations I’d heard. So I contacted Wayne Jacobsen, the man William P. Young claims largely inspired him to pursue publishing the book. Wayne is a writer whose own work has taken on what passes for Christianity in mainstream culture, targeting what Jacobsen calls the “missing middle” that exists between the mainstream Christian book houses and the general market.

That’s significant background because I’m convinced this is one of the biggest and most under-served readerships worldwide: the group some call the “post-religious,” spiritually-curious, but tired of the typical packaging of church programs and Christian culture. How to reach this elusive audience has been a subject I’ve studied and debated for years, but I believe the larger story around The Shack provides the best case study to date.

Coming from outside both Christian and general markets, it has succeeded in transcending the categories to define a hunger for God the typical Christian fare so often fails to fill.

—–In June 2008, I caught up with Wayne—–

Me: I understand The Shack went through some fairly extensive revisions and rewriting. Can you talk about that?

Wayne: Yeah. Paul (Young, writer), Brad (Cummings, Windblown Media), and I worked for about 16 months bringing out the more dramatic elements, the essence of the story, and cutting back on some of the more theologically loaded or simply curious elements. Through the restructuring, we wanted to be as faithful to Paul’s original idea as possible. The natural result of putting the story first was that the book catches the interest of a spiritually hungry reading public. By allowing the books’ statements about God to be experienced organically as story rather than as propositional truths or systematic theology, The Shack has resonated with a diverse audience, building bridges between all sorts of people.

Me: What did you see in the original manuscript of The Shack that made you feel you should commit to 16 months of work to it?

Wayne: We actually did a podcast with Paul on this where I talked about that very thing.

Me: I’ll include the link (“A Visit to The Shack“). Was it ever difficult to remain committed to it during that time, especially given your many involvements?

Wayne: It wasn’t a commitment at the outset, but I felt he had a great book here and Paul wasn’t motivated to do the rewrites we thought needed to be done. At one point the three of us and Bobby Downes of Downes Brothers Entertainment sat down to storyboard the movie and suggest changes in the book. Even with that, Paul wanted me to help. Eventually, I felt a nudge from the Spirit to do so and rewrote a chapter to show him what I was talking about. Then I did another, and then Brad got involved and it started to grab him, so we kept going. At one point each of us had written a version of the chapter with Sophie in the cave, and we just put them all together and kept the stuff we agreed on. A lot of it was like that. Paul was so generous with his gift, and I was using Paul’s words and working to keep it his vision. I’d never done that as an editor—I’d always just been a writer—so the commitment was more something that evolved relationally.

Me: How many people in Christian publishing—authors, agents, and editors—have contacted you about working with Windblown?

Using a garage as a warehouse, William P. Young, left, author of The Shack, helps publishers Brad Cummings, center, and Wayne Jacobsen pack books for shipping. CREDIT: Rachelle Hanshaw

Wayne: Oh, more than I can count now. Christian publishing people want to do it. The Shack is hitting the middle ground, but transcending it—church people, Jewish people, the spiritually curious, etc.—all having the conversations as it relates to their spiritual interests. It doesn’t necessarily identify that middle ground because it’s more diverse than that. It’s the reality of Paul’s pain and how he deals with it. It’s more an experience not a theology thing. Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice and they won’t follow a stranger.” We don’t have to take on the mentality of gatekeepers. The push-back from the religious Taliban is that they’re making it about “them and us”–like there’s those who are in and those who are out. But that isn’t what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served

Me: One of the most exciting things about The Shack to me is that it provides hope to so many people who haven’t been served in the Christian mainstream for whatever reason. This “spiritually interested”  audience is not only receptive, but seems to be responding to the idea that God is even more loving and boldly relational than we tend to think, that He’s forceful in breaking down the very walls the religious establishment wants to build in their preference for safe, non-confrontational literature. Do you see a parallel here to how Jesus used parables that were offensive to the religious establishment he was denouncing?

Wayne: People are definitely trying to defame and marginalize the message. This argument about feminizing God, for instance. The book explains very clearly that God shows up as a black woman because that’s the image that puts Mack at ease. God could have shown up as whatever he wanted, but the people who say he can’t be a black woman don’t seem to accept that. There are also some people saying it’s promoting universalism, that all paths lead to God. Even though Jesus says very clearly and repeatedly that he’s the only way, the detractors want to insist that Paul really meant something else.

For too long there’s been a fear of offending the establishment. Publishing people don’t love the books they’re publishing. Our publishing The Shack was never about being commercial or pleasing people. It was meant to be honest and truthful, to find passionate readers who were looking for this. We want to do books that resonate with people’s hearts. It was never intended to be the full orthodoxy of the gospel, whatever we may have believed that to mean.

Me: That’s a really important point. When people talk about “biblical orthodoxy” what they’re really talking about is a bunch of different historical traditions of interpretation of a bunch of theological concepts that really have very little to do with the uninterpreted Bible. The concept is deceptive and notoriously divisive in the ways it’s applied. And I guess when you put words in God’s mouth and have him saying things that sound a little too out of the box…

Wayne: You get whacked! Yeah. People say they believe in things all the time, but they really don’t. Some Christians don’t believe in the Incarnation—the in-dwelling spirit of God in everyone who believes. And it isn’t that they don’t want to believe, they’ve just never experienced it. And I think it’s sad that so many can’t allow themselves to have that experience. But those who want to explore that and experience it shouldn’t be judged for it.

Me: Well said. It seems to me a big difference between those who embrace The Shack and those who denounce it are divided between understanding faith as an intellectual construct based in the interpretation of theological concepts, and faith as an experience of these things–one is mental, the other physical. And certainly we need a balance there, but how can faith be experienced if the familiar barriers of judgment and condemnation are always there? Do you think this is why there are so many disillusioned Christians and “spiritually interested” folks not finding much in mainstream Christian publishing?

Wayne: I’m sure that’s part of it. There are many reasons. Publishing is slow, expensive, and risky. But it’s pretty difficult to keep true to the edge–of actually living out these theological concepts–while you’re worried about offending the mainstream.

Me: Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for inviting so much challenging discussion through this book. I know I’m not the only one who’s grateful for the opportunity to explore these ideas more.

Wayne: My pleasure, Mick. Thank you.

Note: Since first published in 2007, The Shack has garnered much acclaim and controversy and has gone on to become one of the bestselling books of all time. And despite being denounced as heresy, the movie releases March 3rd, 2017. 

[Please feel free to leave a kind, intelligent comment–all others will be denied, like CNN at a Trump press conference.]

Christian Pop Culture and the “Missing Middle”

Bustedtees.db7aa9604a42b3ae4ced04272de8072a[1]You may not share this mission. 

Maybe you feel more strongly for something else. Maybe your creative spirit soars to different music. Maybe you don't know what I'm on about discussing books for this "missing middle."

That's okay.

Do your thing and do it well.

But for nearly 20 years, maybe longer, I've been disappointed by Christianity. I've lived in the shadow of something I considered an embarrassment. It seemed to follow me around wherever I looked. I was guilty by association. In the popular parlance of my childhood and early adulthood which took place in the early 80s and 90s, the adjective "Christian" was largely synonymous with "a shoddy, reduced copy."

Some of you know what I'm talking about. Some of you don't.

Sure we had Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Frank Peretti wrote that big thriller. And there were a number of excellently produced boycotts. But for every reason to be proud, there were 100 reasons to cringe.

Now that is finally changing, after all this time–in music, in movies, and in books. In my industry–books–the popular interest in spiritual things is welcome indeed.

The Christian pop culture was described well in Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh. This is the parallel universe I grew up in. An old article/reviewby Hannah Rosin said:

"A young Christian can get the idea that her religion is a tinny, desperate thing that can't compete with the secular culture. A Christian friend who'd grown up totally sheltered once wrote to me that the first time he heard a Top 40 station he was horrified, and not because of the racy lyrics: 'Suddenly, my lifelong suspicions became crystal clear,' he wrote. 'Christian subculture was nothing but a commercialized rip-off of the mainstream, done with wretched quality and an apocryphal insistence on the sanitization of reality.'"

Where souls are at stake, it seems, creative work is restricted. And where creative work is restricted, it becomes a clanging gong, serving only those already in the club. That's one reason (as Rosin says) “it's always been a stretch to defend Christian pop culture as the path to eternal salvation.” So now can we write books that are Christian but not for Christians? That's where this middle ground is opening up between CBA and ABA through books like The Shack and others. Will we escape the confines of these walls and face up to the fact that a Christian pop culture does not save souls, has never really been about that underneath anyway, and conflicts and confuses converts with its “eternal oxymoron?”

 

Here’s my answer: No. Some can’t. And some shouldn’t. They have God to answer to. Some have been called to preach to the choir to encourage them to sing, and to keep singing even in the face of incredible opposition. Yes, these folks are needed. Let me not stand in their way.

 

But here’s my answer to the new voices: Yes. You don’t have to produce the Jesus Junk and the Kinkade Kommemorative Kolection just because you’re a Christian. There’s a big world out there waiting for your junk, er, work, and Andy Crouch and Mako Fujimura and many "covert Christians" are working to define that space and help it survive its infancy and get off the ground. You'll take some flak for it, but less than you'd expect. It's pretty well established by now–in books like Don Miller's and Rob Bell's and David Kinnaman's unChristian–that there's a problem here and it's not going away until we deal with it.

 

So if you are a writer (elitist, hack, or otherwise), who has a vision for something nontraditional that doesn't fit in the current Christian pop culture market, several modern-world changes are contributing to (as Paulo Coehlo says in The Alchemist) "conspire in your favor." And this should give you all the confidence you need to step out and not accept confinement to your previous notions.

 

Start by reading all the authors and books mentioned in this post. And by sharing your thoughts here. And coming back.

Answering Cross-Market Questions

Welcome spiritually-curious readers and writers. If you have questions about the audience of The Shack or wonder about the best ways to reach this nebulous psychographic of readers, you're in the right place.

 

Ready to look at our burning questions from last time?

 

Q: Why are these [spiritually-interested] books without a clear goal or “take-away” so vastly superior for this audience?

 

This is an answer you need when it comes time to pitch your book. Bottom line: the experience of these books IS the take-away. The story is the appeal. Fiction and non-, the point is in the journey, not the goal or destination. This means the emphasis is on allowing the entire progression of the narrative to “teach” the message, and not offering the usual didactic, message-driven approach propped up by illustrations or manipulated scenes in a novel. Authors of these books start at a different place, often intending to discover alongside the reader, not to design a coersive read. Largely, these are writers seeking after mystery and beauty, not answers or reassurance.

 

Q: What's the best way to prove I can reach these readers?

 

By doing it. Reaching this audience absolutely requires a satisfying read like the one I just described. Whether that’s self-help, memoir, fiction, or investigative journalism, you have to get people talking about the amazing and unique experience your book is. And that writing skill goes hand-in-hand with your skill in marketing. The shift toward more author-driven marketing is strong proof of our increased desire to hear an authentic individual’s story as opposed to the familiar hard-sell coersion tactics of ad campaigns and publicity spin-doctors. You either embrace this new-world thinking and feel passionately about it, or you don’t. As I always point out to potential authors, if you’re onto something and you know it, it’s just a matter of time before others know it too. Ultimately, your marketing should be an extension of your passionate search in your writing. How you prove that is by being an authentically passionate connector (We’ll get more specific about this in next week’s post).

 

Q: Should I just self-publish my spiritually-interested book?

 

Good question. It follows a more important one: Do I have one book or several? If you are a career writer, you need to put in the time to your craft and learning the business to find a partner you feel best understands you and serves your ambition level. If you have one book or one burning story within you, it might be best to look outside of professional publishing. I make this distinction when it comes to spiritually-interested books because few writers can (or want to) write several. Staying in a perpetual state of searching is hard to keep up (ask Don Miller). There’s something of a life-stage consideration here—an age where self-awareness and spiritual evaluation is where you are, and a possibly more spiritually-mature stage where you are more decided in your outlook. Your comfort with mystery vs. assurance may change over time and that’s normal. Another reason is producing your book on your own can actually be a benefit in reaching this audience since you aren’t affiliated with any established, traditional house and won’t have to cater to them or compromise to fit their assumptions about the audience. Smart readers like yours are very aware of that dynamic and actually like the idea of an undiluted read (The Shack as exhibit A here again).

 

Q: Are some publishers and retailers really actively seeking these books?

 

Absolutely. In fact, I’m not sure you can find an adult general trade publisher in Christian or general market who wouldn’t be open to looking at a book for the spiritually-interested audience. All will have their own particular flavors and assumptions, but again, self-publishing is a great way to prove you have an audience and can connect with them before attempting to find a publishing partner. Of course, you need to consider how well a potential Christian publisher partner is able to reach the general market, because the place these readers are generally not is Christian bookstores or the Christian shelves at Barnes and Noble. If you see yourself next to John Eldredge and Bruce Wilkinson, you might want to reconsider your approach.

 

As always, your questions, comments and complaints are welcome and appreciated. Next time we’ll talk about what you can specifically do to find readers and build a following. Until then, don’t sweat any of this–and keep writing!

Crossing Over: Writing to the “Spiritually Interested”

"Spiritually interested" is the rather obtuse designation Cathy Grossman borrowed for her article in USA Today speaking about the audience of The Shack. The term comes from Wayne Jacobsen, one of the publishers of the book, attempting to define the larger market for Christian books that Christian publishing is not serving. Since one of my stated goals for this website is to bridge that gap, I think it might be instructive to discuss whether Christian publishing should appeal to more than Christians. After all, like faith without works, or a church that doesn't evangelize, the situation seems unnecessarily restrictive at best, at worst unbiblical.

 

So our question from last time was, How does one capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category of books for the spiritually interested? Some primary distinctives are that these books:

 

  • Do not identify with the Christian subculture or the Christian product and media industries.
  • Focus on experiential faith over propositional truth: Not arguments or lessons, but immersion in a direct, story-driven experience.
  • Show supernatural experience not “evidence” (natural or biblical): The transcendence of God intervening in everyday life through “dispatches from the other side.”
  • Are mysterious over convincing, allowing an experience that’s open-ended, unexplained, and even inconclusive.
  • Are timely and timeless, revealing the here-and-now God unbound to traditionalism, and intimately involved in our uncertainty about the present and near-future.
  • Reveal love triumphing over law, in relationship-affirming and life-honoring freedom from formal religious dogma, judgment, or mediation.

Before hurrying on, we should talk more about that first bullet. Those looking for books outside the strict confines of popular Christianity generally don’t seem to spend much time looking in places the gatekeepers control, namely Christian bookstores. And though there are several exceptions, the obvious limiting factor in getting these books read is that they are not “Christian” enough for Evangelical Christian readers, and up until recently, were too spiritual for most NY houses.

 

But now you see, that’s changing. These books for the spiritually interested are not coersive, they don't pound principles, which is a major reason they fit better in the general market than the Christian subculture. They aren’t closed to including what doesn’t currently fit modern Christianity. These books are redemptive, but their redemption comes in the jouney, not the destination. The “take-away” is of becoming engaged in an exploration, not to fix something, convert skeptics, or even evoke a quatifiable change, but to enjoy a satisfying read. The Shack, while not high literature, provides an example of book-as-interpretive-experience that causes readers to explore. That exploration attracts many “recovering Christians,” but the transcendent experience is broader and more profound than simple affirmation. The Shack challenges stereotypes about God to present him as a generous, fun-loving, approachable mother/father, with a single agenda of bringing unconditional, sacrificial love into the world. In religion and in larger society, that's an easy reality to miss. And what I find so exciting about this example is that despite its initial rejection by CBA and ABA publishers, it's revealed a huge desire for discussion about this God who doesn't necessarily begin and end in our established categories.

 

So why did Christian or NY editors believe their houses shouldn't publish it? Several possibilities, but "too risky" and "not up to snuff" seem likely to this editor.

 

The Shack proves there's an audience of spiritually interested folks who are not being served either by the so-called Christian ghetto or the ivory towers.

 

Some take issue with the idea of designating books as Christian at all. One result of The Shack's success is that readers now recognize there's something more to God and maybe even this word "Christian" than they realized. Maybe David Sessions wasn't just being bombastic when he said that the divide between Christian and mainstream designations has been the single most damaging idea to Christianity in the modern world.

 

Of course, here are the sticky swamplands. If it's not Christian, how do we know it’s wholesome? Can we really let people be their own judges of that? Many rely on labels in today’s hyper-marketed culture, myself included. Where do we redraw the lines of this demographic? And I don't want to waste time arguing about the morality of blurring this line–hoping for a greater reach isn't a failure of faith. I don't question those who still feel called to be Christian writers, and never anything less. But the challenge remains. There's a big underserved audience out there. How are we going to reach them?

 

The good news is, reaching this spiritually interested audience isn't only possible, it's profitable. So next time we'll take a closer look at some comparative books and content characteristics that should reveal a bit more about how we define this emerging category.

Why Is The Shack Still Selling?

Earlier this year (2009), I led a discussion of The Shack and it’s impact on Christian publishing at the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal. Response to that was overwhelmingly positive from the largely Christian group of writers, but as usual, I didn’t get to much of what I was excited to talk about. Most people were far too busy discussing its theology and the successes and failures therein. And though debate about it seems to have died down to a low rumble now, sales continue to clip along for this “heretical” “life-saving” pseudo-fictional book.

 

Whether you love it or hate it, if you’re interested in the question above as much as I am, you will at least like this post. Because what I was so eager to get to at the NCWR was this question of who is buying this book. Let’s do some quick analysis.

 

In early 2008, an article in USA Today defined the audience of The Shack as the rather broad, unwieldy category of “spiritually interested.” But who are they? This audience is curious about spiritual matters, but especially as found outside of organized religion and the religious establishment, however we might define that. Maybe most significant about readers who recommend this book, they tend to be interested in the uncommon approach to the Christian God, and most, how he responds to our pain. They may or may not be Christian, but they’re attracted to the God they meet here (who IS largely the Judeo Christian God of the Bible: http://bit.ly/5srJo), and they are eager for an honest experience of God’s love and transcendence.

 

We might discuss how much less eager traditional Christian churches tend to be for such “extra-biblical” experience and how that defecit created the chasm for this book. That’s a great topic. Or we could look at the growing dissatisfaction with and breakdown of the modern Christian retail industry being undermined by fundamentalists and the traditional establishment creating a bubble, a ghetto, an ivory tower set apart from the very people Jesus worked so hard to get us to serve. Another great topic. But let’s ask another question instead.

 

How do these “pioneers” differ from the more traditional Christian book market?

 

Pioneers value                                 Traditionalists value

Mystery over certainty           Certainty over mystery

Experiential faith                    Propositional truth

Freedom from structure         Structure to their freedom

Personal authority                  Authority figures

Love at the expense of truth   Truth at the expense of love

Authenticity over status          Status over authenticity

Relationship over rules                   Rules over relationship             

Maleable, interpretive            Concrete, quantifiable

A story over principles          Principles over a story

Seeking over knowing           Knowing over seeking

 

Pioneers have been conquering this literary frontier for a while. John Eldredge and Brent Curtis took this experience-based, non-propositional approach in The Sacred Romance and Journey of Desire. Meanwhile Henry Blackaby wrote Experiencing God for the church set and Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez revealed a God who longed to bless. Lauren Winner followed suit with her memoir Girl Meets God, quickly followed by Donald Miller’s meandering Blue Like Jazz and somewhere in this Brian McLaren released A New Kind of Christian. Soon, an unlikely pastor named Rob Bell jumped in with Velvet Elvis and the territory began to get fairly well carved out by various other new voices. One of my personal favorites—Closer Than Your Skin by Susan Hill (WaterBrook, 2007)—uses Susan’s amazing personal journey of discovery to show how to truly know the creator of the eternal reality all around us. No bubbles in there.

 

So to help these pioneers move closer in their journey toward God through authentic spiritual experience, and to encourage them to explore and process new questions about God, the Bible, and faith, we need to understand how to capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category. More on that next time.